It’s not often that I get the reigning Player of the Year asking me to teach him something. My first thought after Brad asked me if I could help
him with Legacy was, “Uh, you think I can teach you something? That’s a good one. How many pro points do you have again?”
There’s a very significant part of me that is shocked and amazed at the opportunities I’ve been given over the last year, so the Small
Child in me was on full overdrive following my conversation with Brad about this project. But he was earnest about wanting to learn the format, and I
suppose this is only appropriate—if I think I know something about the format, I should be able to teach it to beginners and Players of the Year
alike. Still, it was a daunting prospect, you know?
Brad asked me to teach him “everything [I] know about Legacy.” How do you ever begin to answer that question? “Oh, it’s very
simple, you see, it’s all about this.” I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have Legacy all figured out. I regularly play
against decks that surprise and inspire me to rethink how the format operates.
If we have to begin somewhere, it makes sense to understand why certain decks are good and other decks are not. At the core of Legacy, then, is an
assertion that I made last week:
The fundamental driver of Legacy is Lion’s Eye Diamond.
I use Lion’s Eye Diamond as the poster child for a broader categorization of degenerate, turn-two-kill combo decks. Cards like Cephalid
Illusionist, Golgari Grave-Troll, Painter’s Servant, and Show and Tell could all be on this list, but Lion’s Eye Diamond perfectly
represents what they all have in common: they all provide a tremendous amount of mana value at a below-market price. LED is the most egregious
offender, turbo-charging decks with kill cards from Dread Return to Grindstone to Goblin Charbelcher to Tendrils of Agony. The quasi-Black Lotus speeds
up several decks by more than a turn, making Legacy a pretty unfair format at first glance.
A Lion’s Eye Diamond deck looks to be capable of killing on turn two. Because of the tremendous speed that these decks possess, there are a ton
of hate cards that are irrelevant against LED combo decks even when drawn. A Zoo deck that draws its Ethersworn Canonist or Gaddock Teeg could be dead
after its “Taiga, Wild Nacatl, go.” A Junk deck that has Mox Diamond into Hymn to Tourach could hit two lands, leaving a pristine turn-two
kill hand. You get the idea—LED decks are really fast and leave opposing decks time for very little interaction. This speed provides a huge edge
against non-blue decks, whether they’re black disruption decks, green creature decks, red aggressive decks, or any deck with more than two basic
Plains at all.
This isn’t to say that Painter beats everything or that Storm beats everything, but that Lion’s Eye Diamond decks (pure combo) have a
historically and archetypically favorable matchup against the non-blue decks in Legacy (midrange and aggro). Permanents are an unreliable way of
attacking Lion’s Eye Diamond decks: you could Chalice for zero, but they could just kill you with Dark Rituals, Ad Nauseam, and a Chain of Vapor.
You could Null Rod a Painter deck, but they could Show and Tell an Emrakul, the Aeons Torn into play. You get where this is going. If you don’t
have a way of attacking Lion’s Eye Diamond strategies (not the card, but the whole deck), your deck can’t really play a “control
game.” This leads directly into another core assertion about the format:
There is no such thing as non-blue control in Legacy.
There are too many powerful cards in Legacy. You cannot hope to defeat or even contain them with discard, removal, and permanent-based answers.
Counterspells—and more specifically, free counterspells—are at the core of Legacy’s health. Without Force of Will, Dark
Ritual would be the best card in the format by a very wide margin. Due to Force of Will’s presence, however, blue control and aggro-control decks
that keep combo decks in check exist.
Why can’t permanent-based answer decks exist, though? Surely Trinisphere, Chalice of the Void, and two-mana lands are a viable strategy, right?
Well, yes and no. They’re very explosive, they can have good hands, and they can beat any deck. In that sense, they’re a viable strategy.
Ultimately, though, they lose to themselves. They lose to their own inconsistency. The format is too broad, threats are too diverse, and permanents are
too expensive to reliably deploy permanent-based answers to every line of attack. Your Chalice of the Void will work wonders against Storm, but it will
do nothing against Dredge. Your Ghostly Prison will beat Empty the Warrens and Bridge from Below tokens, but it’s awful against Grindstone and
Tendrils of Agony. And so on.
Inconsistency is the hallmark of unsuccessful permanent-based control decks. Eventually, they will draw their Chalices against Dredge, their Ghostly
Prisons against control decks, and a few too many lands against aggressive decks. In a format as diverse as Legacy, it’s difficult to create a
winning strategy that lacks extreme redundancy, an overpowering game plan, or some form of deck manipulation. This last element—deck
manipulation—is at the center of another core assertion about the format:
Brainstorm is the best card in Legacy because it lets blue decks play a diverse set of cards and not suffer in matchups where it initially draws a
poorly positioned card.
If Lion’s Eye Diamond decks create 80-20 matchups against aggressive and midrange decks incapable of meaningfully interacting with fast combo
decks, then blue decks are the 50-50 decks of Legacy. They’re very forgiving, there are tons of ways they can be built, and the printing of
Mental Misstep has given them a tempo-neutral way of countering many crucial spells in Legacy.
Brainstorm is what turns those 50-50 decks into 52-48 decks or better, depending on how optimally you time your Brainstorms. By getting to shuffle away
removal spells against combo and excess lands against aggressive decks, blue decks can completely change the makeup of their hand for a tiny cost and
at instant speed. Nothing else in any other color comes close to approximating the effect of getting to play a slew of narrowly useful cards while not
always suffering the downside of drawing them at inopportune times.
Decks that have permanent-based solutions to combo cannot, by their very design, play Brainstorm. The best permanent-based answer to the broadest range
of cards is Chalice of the Void. Since the optimal charge for Chalice is often at one counter, Chalice decks are fundamentally antagonistic to (and
thus dis-synergistic with) Brainstorm. It doesn’t help that Chalice of the Void (and other permanent-based answers) want you to play with a lot
of two-mana lands and that Brainstorm wants you to play with a lot of fetchlands and lands with basic land types. As a result, deckbuilders are forced
to choose between inconsistent monochrome permanent-based answer decks and consistent multicolored spell-based answer decks. This conflict was settled
long ago, but understanding why Brainstorm won is just as important as knowing that Brainstorm is the best card in Legacy.
There may be some of you who are wondering why I haven’t paid much attention to the dense suite of black discard spells available for those that
want to attack a combo deck’s hand. Before New Phyrexia, I would have argued for Hymn to Tourach being one of the top ten cards in the format.
Now, it’s just another card, mostly good against non-blue decks that can’t draw their way out of the card disadvantage. It’s passable
against combo decks, but the overall playability of black disruption spells has waned, and so they are a naturally less-viable option against combo
decks due to their weakened position in the metagame. After all, if you’re going to beat combo with discard or counters but your discard deck
will lose to the decks with counters, why play discard? Why not just play counters?
The dominance of blue decks doesn’t stop at Brainstorm, you see. The recent printing of Mental Misstep slowed the format down enough that
Ancestral Vision and Standstill became viable card advantage engines in Legacy. Prior to Mental Misstep’s printing, the format was too fast for
decks that generated real card advantage. As a result, Hymn to Tourach was the best way to get ahead on resources. After Mental Misstep, though, Hymn
to Tourach was put up against a field of blue decks packing undercosted draw-threes. If you’ve read any of my other articles, you know which side
of that fight I prefer to be on.
Blue decks are relatively overplayed because of their even matchups. Besides that, though, blue decks feel like you get to play Magic in all
of your games. As Ari Lax put it to me, “Non-blue loses harder to combo than blue loses to non-blue.” In blue decks, all of your cards do
something. It might not be a particularly powerful thing in the given circumstance, but you interact with every opponent. In non-blue decks, far more
of your games can involve you losing and thinking, “Well, couldn’t do anything about that; he just killed me.” Players don’t
like that, and as a result, many players opt for decks that afford them more options and more intersections for interaction.
So if the most powerful approach to Legacy is combo and the most even approach is spell-based blue control, what beats both? From an archetype
perspective, a blue-based aggro-control deck should fare well against this metagame. Predictably enough, Merfolk is slightly favored against
Lion’s Eye Diamond decks and Brainstorm decks and has been a top-tier deck choice for several years at this point.
The reason that Merfolk is good against Brainstorm decks is that it makes very efficient use of its mana throughout a game, has great threat density
due to its manlands, and plays cards like Cursecatcher to both apply pressure and throw an opponent’s spell-based curve off. Its advantage used
to be far more pronounced in the days of blue decks playing Sensei’s Divining Top, but it is still slightly ahead of many blue control decks.
Since Ancestral Vision and Stoneforge Mystic have replaced Sensei’s Divining Top and Counterbalance as the one-two punch of choice for many top
blue players, however, the matchup is nearly even.
Before New Phyrexia, blue decks had two major issues—they were mostly dead to an Aether Vial, and they couldn’t get on the board fast
enough to stop Merfolk’s early assault, leaving them dead to a Lord of Atlantis in the midgame. With Mental Misstep and Batterskull, however, the
U/W Stoneforge deck has shown that Brainstorm decks can keep up with aggressive blue decks. This tactical shift, combined with Mental Misstep’s
suppression of combo decks, has left Merfolk without many good matchups. If nothing else, you know something’s wrong with Merfolk when Alex
Bertoncini rolls up to a tournament with Brainstorms instead of Cursecatchers.
So where does that leave everything else? What about those midrange and aggressive decks that struggle against combo? If Merfolk is a common occurrence
at SCG Opens (it very much is), then non-blue midrange and aggressive strategies seem ideal against their smaller creatures and irrelevant islandwalk,
right? Well, sort of.
Ancestral Vision’s power isn’t limited to beating Swamps. Every time I have an Ancestral Vision in hand and an opponent plays a Forest of
any type, I mentally pump the fist. Blue decks have shifted toward a strategy of playing lots of one-for-ones and then reloading with Ancestral.
Without a way to answer that advantage, green decks are going to keep losing to blue decks. There are a couple of ways that green decks can address
Play Equipment. Unfortunately, many control decks already plan to kill, counter, or bounce all of your creatures. Since it’s far easier to
overload on creature removal, control decks don’t need to worry as much about Equipment. If they can keep all of your creatures from landing,
your “advantage” will languish in play while you get beat up by Mishra’s Factory or Stoneforge Mystic.
Play planeswalkers. One of the major advantages that blue decks have over green decks in Legacy is that their long game is better because of Jace, the
Mind Sculptor. If green decks play their own planeswalkers, blue decks will be forced to tap mana on their own turn far more often in order to deal
with those cards, leading to spots where the green decks can stick multiple creatures and overwhelm the blue player’s defenses.
Play a more threat-dense deck. This could be something as simple as adding Squadron Hawk or something as complicated as brewing up a deck that attacks
new blue decks from every possible angle. I was genuinely impressed by my friend Andrew Campbell’s innovative G/B/W deck from Baltimore when we
played in round five. For reference, his list:
- 1 Birds of Paradise
- 1 Terravore
- 4 Dark Confidant
- 1 Tarmogoyf
- 4 Knight of the Reliquary
- 1 Qasali Pridemage
- 1 Thrun, the Last Troll
Now this is a green deck that knows how to attack blue decks. It has all the usual suspects, no Hymn to Tourach to fight a losing card-volume
battle, and a ton of pinpoint threats. Instead, he has seven pinpoint discard spells to attack the cards he cares about—Jace, Swords to
Plowshares, Ancestral Vision, Standstill, and any Equipment that Stoneforge Mystic might get. He has multiple avenues of recursion, a full set of Mox
Diamonds to create more early-game turns where it can stick its threats through opposing countermagic, and a Green Sun’s Zenith package that runs
from Dryad Arbor all the way to Thrun, the Last Troll. If the game goes long, Andrew has two Dryad Arbors that can attack Jace, the Mind Sculptor,
making it a less-than-reliable Unsummon machine—its best role against green decks. Finally, he has a third Life from the Loam in the sideboard
along with a pair of Elspeth, Knight-Errant and a Gaddock Teeg to attack blue decks from every conceivable angle. In the era of Ancestral Vision and
Standstill, Andrew’s deck reflects his understanding of just how outmoded the typical Bayou-flavored two-for-one attrition decks are.
Green decks are historically favored against Merfolk and possess the tools to beat blue control. Brad’s deck from Columbus was very outdated by
the time he played it in Providence, and it showed. Zoo and Junk decks need to have both velocity and a great endgame to beat the current crop of
Brainstorm decks. Andrew’s deck fulfills both requirements with Mox Diamond, Life from the Loam, a well-built mana base, and strong spell
selection (who else has cut Hymn to Tourach from their Bayou deck??). For Patrick Sullivan at the Invitational, that meant packing a ton of burn and
every good one-drop (plus Steppe Lynx) into a deck, adding a set of Wastelands for light disruption, and dictating the pace of the game on every turn.
Regardless of who you are, though, it’s important to know what your plan is at every point of the game.
So where does this leave our collaborative project? Well, I want your help. What can you learn from exhibition matches that you can’t learn from
articles? This article is as much for you as it is for Brad, but the general idea is to acquaint him with the format to the point where he’ll be
prepared to fly across the ocean and take on Europe in Legacy. I’ve laid out my thoughts on where the format is at this moment, and I anticipate
learning a ton from how Brad approaches deckbuilding and tuning over the next few months.
What I’d like to see in the forums is—aside from questions, comments, and the like on my assessment of the current Legacy format—what
you’d like to see from the project. I don’t think we need creative direction—please, don’t ask us to play games of your pet
deck versus U/W Stoneforge—but there are process-related insights that you guys are certain to find more useful than others. I want to hear what
those are. Do you want to know how to come to a certain decklist? How to approach deckbuilding with a specific goal in mind? Or are you more interested
in how we come up with our lines of play? This project can go in a lot of different directions, and I would love to hear from the community as to how
we can make this as useful a resource for you as it will be for us.
I look forward to hearing from you. If you’ll be in Cincinnati this weekend, I’d love to hear your ideas there, too.